Exodus ix.14. I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people, that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth.
We are now beginning Passion Week, the week of the whole year which ought to teach us most theology; that is, most concerning God, his character and his spirit.
For in this Passion Week God did that which utterly and perfectly showed forth his glory, as it never has been shown forth before or since. In this week Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, died on the cross for man, and showed that his name, his character, his glory was love -- love without bound or end.
It was to teach us this that the special services, lessons, collects, epistles, and gospels of this week were chosen.
The second lesson, the collects, the epistles, the gospel for to- day, all set before us the patience of Christ, the humility of Christ, the love of Christ, the self-sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb without spot, enduring all things that he might save sinful man.
But if so, what does this first lesson -- the chapter of Exodus from which my text is taken -- what does it teach us concerning God? Does it teach us that his name is love?
At first sight you would think that it did not. At first sight you would fancy that it spoke of God in quite a different tone from the second lesson.
In the second lesson, the words of Jesus the Son of God are all gentleness, patience, tenderness. A quiet sadness hangs over them all. They are the words of one who is come (as he said himself), not to destroy men's lives, but to save them; not to punish sins, but to wash them away by his own most precious blood.
But in the first lesson how differently he seems to speak. His words there are the words of a stern and awful judge, who can, and who will destroy whatsoever interferes with his will and his purpose.
'I will at this time send all my plagues upon thine heart, and on thy servants, and all thy people, that thou mayest know that there is none like me in all the earth.' The cattle and sheep shall be destroyed with murrain; man and beast shall be tormented with boils and blains; the crops shall be smitten with hail; the locusts shall eat up every green thing in the land; and at last all the first-born of Egypt shall die in one night, and the land be filled with mourning, horror, and desolation, before the anger of this terrible God, who will destroy and destroy till he makes himself obeyed.
Can this be he who rode into Jerusalem, as on this day, meek and lowly, upon an ass's colt; who on the night that he was betrayed washed his disciples' feet, even the feet of Judas who betrayed him? Who prayed for his murderers as he hung upon the cross, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?'
Can these two be the same?
Is the Lord Jehovah of the Old Testament the Lord Jesus of the New?
They are the same, my friends. He who laid waste the land of Egypt is he who came to seek and to save that which was lost.
He who slew the children in Egypt is he who took little children up in his arms and blessed them.
He who spoke the awful words of the text is he who was brought as a lamb to the slaughter; and as a sheep before the shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.
This is very wonderful. But why should it NOT be wonderful? What can God be but wonderful? His character, just because it is perfect, must contain in itself all other characters, all forms of spiritual life which are without sin. And yet again it is not so very wonderful. Have we not seen -- I have often -- in the same mortal man these two different characters at once? Have we not seen soldiers and sailors, brave men, stern men, men who have fought in many a bloody battle, to whom it is a light thing to kill their fellow-men, or to be killed themselves in the cause of duty; and yet most full of tenderness, as gentle as lambs to little children and to weak women; nursing the sick lovingly and carefully with the same hand which would not shrink from firing the fatal cannon to blast a whole company into eternity, or sink a ship with all its crew? I have seen such men, brave as the lion and gentle as the lamb, and I saw in them the likeness of Christ -- the Lion of Judah; and yet the Lamb of God.
Christ is the Lamb of God; and in him there are the innocence of the lamb, the gentleness of the lamb, the patience of the lamb: but there is more. What words are these which St. John speaks in the spirit? --
'And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together, and every mountain and island were moved out of their places; and the kings of the earth, and the great, and the rich, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman and every freeman hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains; and said to the mountains and to the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?'
Yes, look at that awful book of Revelation with which the Bible ends, and see if the Bible does not end as it began, by revealing a God who, however loving and merciful, long-suffering, and of great goodness, still wages war eternally against all sin and unrighteousness of man, and who will by no means clear the guilty; a God of whom the apostle St. Paul, who knew most of his mercy and forgiveness to sinners, could nevertheless say, just as Moses had said ages before him, 'Our God is a consuming fire.'
Now I think it most necessary to recollect this in Passion Week; ay, and to do more -- to remember it all our lives long.
For it is too much the fashion now, and has often been so before, to think only of one side of our Lord's character, of the side which seems more pleasant and less awful. People please themselves in hymns which talk of the meek and lowly Jesus, and in pictures which represent him with a sad, weary, delicate, almost feminine face. Now I do not say that this is wrong. He is the same yesterday, to- day, and for ever; as tender, as compassionate now as when he was on earth; and it is good that little children and innocent young people should think of him as an altogether gentle, gracious, loveable being; for with the meek he will be meek; but again, with the froward, the violent, and self-willed, he will be froward. He will show the violent that he is the stronger of the two, and the self- willed that he will have his will and not theirs done.
So it is good that the widow and the orphan, the weary and the distressed, should think of Jesus as utterly tender and true, compassionate and merciful, and rest their broken hearts upon him, the everlasting rock. But while it is written, that whosoever shall fall on that rock he shall be broken, it is written too, that on whomsoever that rock shall fall, it will grind him to powder.
It is good that those who wish to be gracious themselves, loving themselves, should remember that Christ is gracious, Christ is loving. But it is good also, that those who do NOT wish to be gracious and loving themselves, but to be proud and self-willed, unjust and cruel, should remember that the gracious and loving Christ is also the most terrible and awful of all beings; sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing asunder the very joints and marrow, discerning the most secret thoughts and intents of the heart; a righteous judge, strong and patient, who is provoked every day: but if a man WILL not turn he will whet his sword. He hath bent his bow and made it ready, and laid his arrows in order against the persecutors. What Christ's countenance, my friends, was like when on earth, we do NOT know; but what his countenance is like now, we all may know; for what says St. John, and how did Christ appear to him, who had been on earth his private and beloved friend?
'His head and his hair were white as snow, and his eyes were like a flame of fire, and his voice like the sound of many waters; and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and his countenance was as the sun when he shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead.'
That is the likeness of Christ, my friends; and we must remember that it is his likeness, and fall at his feet, and humble ourselves before his unspeakable majesty, if we wish that he should do to us at the last day as he did to St. John -- lay his hand upon us, saying, 'Fear not, I am the first and the last, and behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen. I have the keys of death and hell.'
Yes, it is good that we should all remember this. For if we do not, we may fall, as thousands fall, into a very unwholesome and immoral notion about religion. We may get to fancy, as thousands do, rich and poor, that because Christ the Lord is meek and gentle, patient and long-suffering, that he is therefore easy, indulgent, careless about our doing wrong; and that we can, in plain English, trifle with Christ, and take liberties with his everlasting laws of right and wrong; and so fancy, that provided we talk of the meek and lowly Jesus, and of his blood washing away all our sins, that we are free to behave very much as if Jesus had never come into the world to teach men their duty, and free to commit almost any sin which does not disgrace us among our neighbours, or render us punishable by the law.
My friends, it is NOT SO. And those who fancy that it is so, will find out their mistake bitterly enough. Infinite love and forgiveness to those who repent and amend and do right; but infinite rigour and punishment to those who will not amend and do right. This is the everlasting law of God's universe; and every soul of man will find it out at last, and find that the Lord Jesus Christ is not a Being to be trifled with, and that the precious blood which he shed on the cross is of no avail to those who are not minded to be righteous even as he is righteous.
'But Christ is so loving, so tender-hearted that he surely will not punish us for our sins.' This is the confused notion that too many people have about him. And the answer to it is, that just BECAUSE Christ is so loving, so tender-hearted, therefore he MUST punish us for our sins, unless we utterly give up our sins, and do right instead of wrong.
That false notion springs out of men's selfishness. They think of sin as something which only hurts themselves; when they do wrong they think merely, 'What punishment will God inflict on ME for doing wrong?' They are wrapt up in themselves. They forget that their sins are not merely a matter between them and Christ, but between them and their neighbours; that every wrong action they commit, every wrong word they speak, every wrong habit in which they indulge themselves, sooner or later, more or less hurts their neighbours -- ay, hurts all mankind.
And does Christ care only for THEM? Does he not care for their neighbours? Has he not all mankind to provide for, and govern and guide? And can he allow bad men to go on making this world worse, without punishing them, any more than a gardener can allow weeds to hurt his flowers, and not root them up? What would you say of a man who was so merciful to the weeds that he let them choke the flowers? What would you say of a shepherd who was so merciful to the wolves that he let them eat his sheep? What would you say of a magistrate who was so merciful to thieves that he let them rob the honest men? And do you fancy that Christ is a less careful and just governor of the world than the magistrate who punishes the thief that honest men may live in safety?
Not so. Not only will Christ punish the wolves who devour his sheep, but he will punish his sheep themselves if they hurt each other, torment each other, lead each other astray, or in any way interfere with the just and equal rule of his kingdom; and this, not out of spite or cruelty, but simply because he is perfect love.
Go, therefore, and think of Christ this Passion Week as he was, and is, and ever will be. Think of the whole Christ, and not of some part of his character which may specially please your fancy. Think of him as the patient and forgiving Christ, who prayed for his murderers, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' But remember that, in this very Passion Week, there came out of those most gentle lips -- the lips which blessed little children, and cried to all who were weary and heavy laden, to come to him and he would give them rest -- that out of those most gentle lips, I say, in this very Passion Week, there went forth the most awful threats which ever were uttered, 'Woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?' Think of him as the Lamb who offered himself freely on the cross for sinners. But think of him, too, as the Lamb who shall one day come in glory to judge all men according to their works. Think of him as full of boundless tenderness and humanity, boundless long-suffering and mercy. But remember that beneath that boundless sweetness and tenderness there burns a consuming fire; a fire of divine scorn and indignation against all who sin, like Pharaoh, out of cruelty and pride; against all which is foul and brutal, mean and base, false and hypocritical, cruel and unjust; a fire which burns, and will burn against all the wickedness which is done on earth, and all the misery and sorrow which is suffered on earth, till the Lord has burned it up for ever, and there is nothing but love and justice, order and usefulness, peace and happiness, left in the universe of God.
Oh, think of these things, and cast away your sins betimes, at the foot of his everlasting cross, lest you be consumed with your sins in his everlasting fire!